HC Deb 22 June 1964 vol 697 cc189-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

11.20 p.m.

Sir John Foster (Northwich)

It is perhaps fitting that, after the last debate, in which the House considered the pessimistic view of youth, I should raise for a few minutes the question of something which is constructive, both for our youth and for our elderly people.

We must recognise that one of the problems of our modern youth is its extra energy, which sometimes gets misdirected in a manner which has been seen recently in the riots, or near-riots, in some seaside towns. We must also recognise the very serious problem which the elderly sick, or the elderly lonely, present in not always getting the attention which they should have because there are not available people to visit them and help with their various difficulties.

I therefore ask the House to consider a movement which has grown up, but which has no name, no premises, and only one telephone, although it is a continuing organisation. Although nameless, this organisation has managed to get thousands of young people in London to visit thousands of old people, and do jobs for them, such as shopping, going other errands, and doing things about the house. The movement is recognised to the extent that in many boroughs the medical officer of health, the after-care officials, and the district nurses have come to know that they can appeal to a number of young people to come in to help when help is needed for the problems of the lonely and the elderly. This movement was recently given £400 worth of paint, and young people painted scores of old persons' homes. It is now possible for welfare officials to ring up and state who of the old people have not been visited lately, or who are in need of help with shopping or something of that sort.

All this appeals to the need felt by young people to do something constructive. The dividing line between somebody who rushes into a crowd of peaceful people who are camping, or bathing on the seashore, and knocks them over, and the young persons who will do something helpful and constructive for the elderly, is a very fine one. In many boys' clubs it has been found that the person who, at one moment is the leader of a gang of roughs, going about causing damage, has been persuaded to go along and do something constructive.

My appeal this evening is that this movement should be given a further impetus by the Government. We are already grateful for the fact that the Department of Education has seen its way to make it possible to give a grant to enable the organisation to form itself into a legal entity so that it may acquire a name, and trustees; but it will need to acquire premises. It will never suddenly, at any moment, become over-organised, because the structure which I envisage is one of trustees for the money which may come from foundations and other organisations, and a council of elders, acquainted with the problems of the organisation. This, however, would not be meant to control it, but merely to advise and help in its relations with the authorities.

The whole object of the organisation will be to do useful jobs. There are thousands of elderly persons in London alone who do not get sufficient visiting, and who have difficulties in getting out of their homes, and who want help when they have not sufficient heating, and help with the inevitable problems which they want to raise with the local welfare officials but which they are not capable of doing themselves.

The object of the organisation, when it gets its name, will be to appoint a central location for the jobs which are required to be done by the local authorities—and which will be done by these youths who are available in ever-growing numbers. The appeal is entirely to the need for young people to do something constructive. The value of the scheme is partly that it helps to solve the problem of juvenile delinquency and the excesses of youth which we have seen. It will not solve the problem altogether; there will always remain a percentage of youths who have to be restrained or disciplined if they break the law. But if we can get people helping the less fortunate of the elderly, youth will follow that lead.

The movement has been started by a young barrister who has found time from his busy practice to collect by word of mouth the names of hundreds and even thousands of young people in London. In every London borough he has a councillor—this is his only organisation—who acts as liaison officer in respect of the jobs which have arisen, partly through finding out the information by canvassing and partly, as the movement got going, through the medical officers of health and other local authority officers getting these young people to do these jobs.

But when the time comes that one has thousands of these young people, one must have a definite organisation, with a paid staff, to receive requests for help and to get the particular young people to visit the particular old people who need this help. It is an exciting idea. There are many institutions in the country through which this is being done locally, but I hope that those who have influence, and especially the Government, will give a lead in a nation-wide movement in which the appeal to youth will be that there is something constructive to be done and organised by them, and for which they will be responsible.

The older members of the population would help by giving support behind the scenes. I feel that this confidence in the spirit of youth to do something constructive will be repaid by a diminution in juvenile delinquency, which often is just the dividing line between high spirits which are constructive and high spirits which are destructive. The optimistic side of the picture is that this scheme works. One cannot say, "Perhaps it will not work. Perhaps young people do not want constructive things to do". It has worked in the movement which I have described and in other parts of the country. We know of local organisations—boys' clubs, religious organisations, the Catholic Youth, the Methodist Youth—which undertake this task of helping the old, the lonely and the sick. But what has not happened so far is the provision by the welfare authorities of these cases in which help is needed. At present, this is rather haphazard. If one could organise it centrally, and, at the same time, get universal support, one would then be able to collect information about old and lonely people who need help.

The organisation which I am asking should be set up would be designed to achieve this purpose. On the one hand, one would have the volunteer young people anxious to do these jobs—as has been proved—and, on the other, one would have information about the lonely, elderly and sick who needed help. The problem is to bring the two together. This movement has already proved that it can work. It has proved its appeal to the young. Regrettably, there is no need to prove the number of people who need the help. The movement could be very much encouraged. The next step needed is a nation-wide appeal, and Government grant supplemented by money from private sources.

One might start in London, because here we have the councillors in each borough already interested, we have the volunteers in each borough, and we have the embryo organisation already functioning and doing a job. When it has proved itself further, one might extend the movement to all parts of the country. I hope that this debate will help in publicity being given to the idea, extending its appeal to all those in the population v/ho want to help with the problems of youth and of the elderly.

11.32 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I wish to support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster) in his very exciting proposition. I hope that the idea of the scheme which he has put to the House will spread nationally. In the provincial town of Plymouth, we have already tried this experiment in a small way. Some time ago, I gave a house to the Guild of Social Service for evicted families. I am glad to say that this house was thoroughly done up, with the exception of putting in a bathroom and installing electricity, entirely by a group of young volunteers.

Quite recently, the Guild called a meeting and asked the young people how they felt they could help further. Besides suggesting that they might help with elderly people's gardens—we have a lot of gardens in Plymouth, and it is often very difficult for old people to keep their gardens in order—they suggested rather exciting projects, such as going on to Dartmoor and trying to keep it clean, helping with orphan children and looking after the sick and the elderly.

Only the other day, I had a case in point. An old man, living alone, was returned home from hospital and, most unfortunately, none of his relations was notified. He was left in the house without food for about two days before he was discovered. If there were such an organisation as that outlined by my hon. and learned Friend, these cases could be looked after.

During the war, we started an organisation which began in a small way, setting up girls' training corps. I was then working in the London boroughs. We found that several of us had similar ideas in setting up these small corps, and we eventually had a joint meeting between London and Essex, and formed what eventually became a nation-wide organisation known as the National Association of Girls' Training Corps. I hope that the plan which my hon. and learned Friend has put to us will be the embryo of a much wider organisation in the future.

There is a tremendous amount of good will and energy available among young people, and I am glad to say that there is money, too, because a lot of them are extremely generous in the donations which they make to help people. I am sure that we can call upon this spirit among young people, a spirit opposed to the one we usually hear about in reports of the doings of "Mods" and "Rockers", and, I believe, a stronger spirit, too. If these resources can be called into play, there would be tremendous benefit not only for the young people themselves but for the nation as a whole.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State will give a helpful reply to my hon. and learned Friend and, encourage this organisation to go forward with a new spirit in the knowledge that it will have Government backing as well as the backing of the public as a whole.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Desmond Donnelly (Pembroke)

I will delay the House for only one minute. I congratulate, if it is not presumptuous of me, the hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster) on a moving and important speech about subjects on which the House does not spend much time.

The hon. and learned Member has been a Member of this House longer than I, but if he had never done anything else, what he said tonight is of considerable human importance; and the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers), who is a distinguished champion of human problems, has reinforced her hon. and learned Friend's remarks with the plea which she made.

Both the hon. Lady and the hon. and learned Member have spoken of a problem about which something can be done. It is an important, a heartwarming problem. I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond sympathetically, because attention has been focused on something that is a practical answer to a very practical problem. This is the sort of subject for an Adjournment debate, for it affects many hundreds of thousands of people. I congratulate the hon. and learned Member on his initiative.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Elon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Without the distinction of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers), or my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster), I would like simply to say that I have been struck by the gap which exists between many young people and public life. A survey has been made recently by an American sociologist in a Yorkshire town. He devised what he has described as a "Pied Piper index"—a measure of what would happen to a town if all the young people under the age of 35 suddenly left to follow a Pied Piper.

The survey indicated, to the professor's satisfaction, that if the people under 35 left an American town, that town would collapse, because they were the heart and soul of its political, economic and cultural life. However, he concluded from his studies in the Yorkshire town that if all the people under 35 left very little would happen because the young people, he maintained, were not actively participating in the social, political and cultural life of the community.

That professor may have exaggerated in both respects, but even if there is some truth in his conclusion—that there is a gap between our young people and our public life—it is a sad indictment. I believe that the proposal that my hon. and learned Friend has put forward is a good way of beginning to bridge this gap. I commend it for more than therapeutic reasons; more because of the possibility that it will, somehow, reduce juvenile delinquency.

There are good reasons why young people want to be of help to the old and lonely. They have a strong conscience about it and this conscience can be mobilised in a civilised society to give aid to others. If the young can be brought together, to participate, they will be giving service not in an intangible way, but in a way that matters most to the young, in a practical and constructive way.

If the community is willing to help those who are old and lonely, and if the young can be brought together to work together, that will benefit many people. Having spoken to many of the people concerned, I should like strongly to commend the suggestion which my hon. and learned Friend has made tonight.

11.39 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

I welcome without reserve the speech that has been made by my hon and learned Friend the Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster) this evening. Some of the young people who are engaged on the particular project which he has described to the House are, I believe, listening to this debate. They may feel that we do not have a very full House to listen to his speech, but they should, know that it is fairly rare for an Adjournment debate to attract four speakers in the way that this one has done, and four speakers expressing so unanimous a view.

Some, I suppose, might feel that there should be no need for voluntary services by young people of the kind that my hon. and learned Friend has described. They might point to the range of statutory services that are available to help elderly people. They might point to the voluntary organisations that exist specifically for that purpose, and they might, I suppose, contend that if all these organisations were functioning satisfactorily there should be no place for voluntary help by young people.

It is true that all these organisations exist, that they have been steadily improved over the years, and that they will develop greatly, but I believe that there is and probably always will be a place for voluntary service by young people. This kind of activity on the part of organised youth groups and clubs is, of course, of considerable standing. The Albemarle Report, four years ago, recognised that many young people do wish to have recognised their ability to make, as they put it, "a significant contribution to society."

Certainly, this concept of community service is deeply embedded in many youth organisations, for example, in the ideals of the Scout and Guide movement; thousands of young people in the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance Brigade belong to organisations whose purpose is to help the aged and distressed. But it is my impression that in recent years there has been a really quite remarkable growth of interest by young people in schemes for helping the elderly, the lonely and others in the community who are in need.

Voluntary Service Overseas is one outstanding example of a scheme whereby young people are given the opportunity to be of service. The founder of that movement, Mr. Alec Dickson, has recently started an organisation which gives to young people the chance of providing voluntary service full time for a period at home. With some encouragement from the Department of Education, the Youth Service at Portsmouth has a most interesting project entitled "Youth Action", a project somewhat similar to that which has been described by my hon. and learned Friend. But I agree that Mr. Steen and his friends have in recent years built up a movement in London which is in some respects unique and which is certainly full of promise.

My hon. and learned Friend has described the kind of activities upon which these young people have been engaged. I understand that there are now over 1,500 volunteers from youth clubs, schools and training colleges who are giving regular service. My Department has been in touch with Mr. Steen for some months, and I have had the opportunity of discussing with him his plans for the future. His proposals were considered by the Youth Service Development Council, which advises us on matters concerned with youth clubs.

Both my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science have much sympathy with what Mr. Steen is trying to do. In consequence, we have been able to offer him a grant of £3,000 for the first year of his activities, and we hope that we shall be able to make a grant for two succeeding years when we see how the scheme develops.

My hon. and learned Friend said that this organisation had as yet no name and no committee. It will be necessary for the movement to be put on a somewhat more formal basis than at present. It will be necessary for it to be constituted into a legal entity. We shall then be able to pay out the grant to which I have referred. I may say that the grant comes from funds that are devoted to experimental purposes in the Youth Service, and this particular grant represents one of the largest we have made.

My hon. and learned Friend has recognised that it is not enough for such organisations as this to appeal simply to young people's sense of compassion, and the movement we are now discussing has certainly shown that it is aware of the importance of bringing hard sense and imaginative sympathy to bear on the needs of those whom it is trying to help. Co-operation with other authorities working in the field is essential if one is to get the full benefit of a scheme such as this.

It seems to me, too, that for this organisation a policy of gradual development rather than sudden expansion may be the right way to make progress. It is my understanding that the present plan is to set up in a few London boroughs a thorough organisation which will attempt to provide in these specific areas voluntary services on a comprehensive scale.

I am also informed that the London County Council has shown considerable interest in the scheme. We have invited it to consider what additional help it can give. I hope that the boroughs in which the organisation is working will be responsive, and will continue to co-operate in its activities. I hope, too, that industry and other voluntary sources will generously support Mr. Steen's scheme, and that he will be able to make an early start on putting his plan into effect.

In a complex and fast-moving society such as ours, there are, undoubtedly thousands of people who are lonely. There are many more whose needs are not discovered by all the organisations working in the field. I believe, there fore, that the subject that my hon. and learned Friend has introduced this evening is an important one. I am sure that young people have a great contribution to make—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes to Twelve o'clock.